An elegantly dressed man enters through a stage door onto a set with decorated back screen, a chair and small table. He brings a well-dressed women through the door, spreads a newspaper on the floor, and places the chair on it. She sits and fans herself; he covers her with a diaphanous cloth. She disappears; he tries to conjure her back with incomplete results. Can he go beyond the bare bones of a conjuring trick and succeed in the complete reconstitution of a the lady? Written by
'Concealment of a Lady at the House of Robert-Houdin' is one of the early 'trick' films of Georges Méliès. In this case, his choice of trick is a questionable one, as here Méliès is merely reproducing (on film) a conjuror's illusion which Robert-Houdin and many other magicians had done live in their stage acts ... so, Méliès is using a camera trick to achieve what the conjurors achieved with stagecraft. Later, Méliès's better and more complicated trick films offered feats which could only be done via camera wizardry ... thus beating the stage illusionists at their own game.
An elegant corseted lady is seated in a chair on the stage. Méliès, dressed in evening attire, drapes a cloth over her, then whisks it away. Hey presto! The lady has been transformed into a skeleton.
For modern audiences, accustomed to 'Bewitched' and such, it's almost laughably obvious that Méliès achieves his effect with a simple jump cut. Unfortunately, Méliès's trickery is cruder and more obvious than it needed to be -- even by 1896 standards -- because the skeleton seated in the chair is about three inches taller than the woman it has replaced. I suspect that, even in 1896, audiences realised that Méliès had substituted the skeleton for the lady, rather than whisked away her clothing and her flesh to leave her own skeleton remaining.
This film's title may have been clear in the 19th century, but now wants some explanation. Robert-Houdin was a legendary French stage magician of the Victorian era. (As I write this, Michael Douglas is planning to star in 'Smoke and Mirrors', based on a true incident in Robert-Houdin's career.) Harry Houdini adapted his own stage name in honour of Robert-Houdin. As a boy, Georges Méliès attended performances of stage magic at Theatre Robert-Houdin, the magician's exhibition hall in Paris. After Robert-Houdin's death, the adult Méliès bought the magician's theatre and adapted it as the studio in which he filmed his trick movies. Quite conveniently, Theatre Robert-Houdin was already fitted with trap doors and other trickery which Méliès put to good use.
More for its historic value than for its entertainment value or the level of its conjuring, I'll rate this early film 8 out of 10.
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